Does showing a man’s penis make an image pornographic?

When I was first getting into photography and still shooting on film, I had a young gay man come into my studio whom I wanted to shoot nude.   He was very excited by the prospect of seeing what we could create together.  His only stipulation was that he did not want any pictures where he would be naked and show his face in the same image.  He was okay with doing nude torso images from the neck down or face pictures from the waist up.   I agreed and said I would work within those parameters.   Hey, I had a live model who was willing to strip down and allow me to light and explore him naked through my photographic process.

He had a classic form and moved and stood in such a way that I knew would be reminiscent of a Greek sculpture.  I worked very hard to create a lighting design that would make him look fantastic. We had an amazing session and both were excited by what we had created.   I processed the film and printed the contact sheets.  Though the images on the contact sheets were raw still, but I could visualize the beauty which would emerge from the prints.   I called the kid and arranged a meeting, excited to show him what we had created.   When he saw the contact sheets, he too was excited and seemed quite pleased.  I gave him a set to take home because he had a boyfriend he wanted to show.   I headed back into the darkroom and began to work on one of the images. It totally began to come to life.   I printed it on a beautiful flat silver gelatin paper so that the tones and flesh had a smooth velvety finish that looked as if they were actually emerging from the darkness.  Everything fell exactly where I knew it would.  The print was remarkable.  I felt like I had created a masterpiece that could hang in someone’s bathroom, or in an open space, or maybe even a gallery – very classic in its pose, form, and structure.  To me it represented perfection for this type of image.  It captured the essence of the pictorialist style of the photo-secessionists from the early 1900s.   I had been studying the photographers and the movement from this era and was particularly drawn to the images of Fred Holland Day.   I had succeeded on every level to create his style of imagery.  In structure, light fall-off, and soft focus beauty on the flat paper.

I called the kid back and told him what a remarkable image we had created.  I immediately knew something was wrong by the tone of his voice.  He did not want to see the image and did not want to work again because he had shown the image to his boyfriend who said it was pornographic.  His boyfriend did not think he should lower himself to the standards of creating porn.  I was stunned and shocked.   It really got me questioning the distinctions between art and pornography.  It has been a question that has haunted me for most of my photographic career.   In my mind’s eye I had created a remarkable piece of art, yet someone else had seen it as pornographic.   Because there is a penis in the image, does it automatically become pornography?  In a sense, this kind of hurt me creatively.  I felt like I was heading in a positive direction and this reaction made me fearful of asking anyone to pose naked again.  If people saw what I was doing as porn, I would get that kind of reputation, and it would kill any chances of finding models to work with, in our small town.   It also put doubt in my approach and stirred a question in the back of my mind every time I worked with nude images thereafter.  It took me a long time to ask someone to pose nude again.

The kid never saw the final image.  I put it away in a box to be lost with other worthless images I had created.  Now to be pulled out many years later and finally shown here today.  Wow, what was I thinking?  How could I allow someone else to influence such a great part of my creativity and hinder my creative process.